Teddy Van Alst visits CSUSM for Community and Writing Series

Laura Jefchak, Features Writer

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Black and white images of Chicago, by photographer Bob Rehak, played on the screens behind Dr. Theodore (Teddy) Van Alst Jr., adding context to the stories about being American Indian in the gang neighborhoods of Chicago’s north side. His energetic reading transported the audience to a time when the government relocated American Indian families to the inner city to break up communal living, where kids could buy cigarettes with a note from their parents and “Jimmy had a key to the handcuffs,” Van Alst said.

The Community and World Literary series continued on March 21 with readings from Dr. Van Alst where he read excerpts from “Sacred Smokes”, his debut short story collection about growing up in “Uptown” Chicago.

Van Alst views his readings as an opportunity to breathe life into the structure of his stories. He worked with his publisher to make sure his stories were stylized to be read as Van Alst wrote them. “Fiction is truth,” he said, so he’s always a little nervous before reading. “I go with what I’m most comfortable with for an unknown audience.”

His first reading, requested by Dr. Rebecca Lush, was called “Old Gold Couch”. “There are things about being in an Indian in the city,” he said “One. Don’t get busted. Two. Never cheat on your girlfriend.” His stories are honest and use a direct voice. “Old Gold Couch” is about becoming good at understanding graffiti tags and hand signs for the gangs in his neighborhood and living in poverty. “Poverty knows no color,” Van Alst said.

As he writes more, Van Alst said he digs deeper into himself. “You have to talk to those stories,” he said “Write a grocery list, a list of your favorite ice cream, or the people you hated in 3rd grade. All experience brings you to where you are right now…It’s a cumulative way of understanding yourself.” He writes stories for himself and then writes stories for the book.

Van Alst said he’s deeply affected by all kinds of poetry. “It’s about the weight of the words,” he said “I always love reading. Reading is magic. You’re not here anymore. If you’re a writer, you’re making the magic.”  He credits author James Alan McPherson as the first person to encourage his writing.

Van Alst is an associate professor and director of Indigenous Studies at Portland State University. His teaching and scholarship focus on contemporary Native film and literature, as well as spirituality and activism. He is also a co-editor and creative editor for Transmotion, an online journal of postmodern indigenous studies.  

The Community and World Literary Series offers students a chance to hear contemporary writers read their works and gives students an opportunity to interact with the authors. Some of the writers are based in Southern California, while others come from all over the country and the world. The next scheduled author will be Brian Kim Stefans on April 11, at 7:00 pm in Markstein 106.